The alleged sale of the Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) is going through rigorous and sharp criticism by Ministers of the Rajapaksa government itself which is creating a myriad of problems to the topmost figures of the higher echelons of government. They maintain the position that it is not a sale of the country’s strategic assets but an investment.
The protagonist who had come out openly against the ECT deal is Minister Prasanna Ranatunga. He underscores his inability to support such a deal but takes necessary precautions at the same time to safeguard his interests within the confines of the governmentby emphatically stating that he would not think for a moment that the President or the Prime Minister would stoop to that level of selling or leasing state assets.
Not only Ranatunga but many ministers have expressed their sentiments that denoted a sharp division within the Cabinet of Ministers over the deal. It is difficult to say whether it was a genuine gesture against the sale of state assets to foreigners or superficial to bolster the support bases in their respective electorates. However, their main concern appeared to be the electorate and voter base and the pledges given during the elections to reverse the so-called “harm” done by the previous regime allegedly contracting to sell state assets.
Ranatunga himself has to come clean of many an allegation against him that are now before the courts of law. His role as the Chief Minister of the western province had been a questionable one many moons ago. The government is also apprehensive about the criticism levelled against them by the Buddhist clergy who tagged along with the Rajapaksas and was virtually instrumental in putting them back on the seats of power. The President at a recent meeting in the Kalutara district went public without batting an eyelid that the ECT was a project initially mooted by the Yahapalananya of the UNP and Minister Sagala Ratnayake attested the agreement. The announcement came in the wake of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe insisting that there were no plans under the UNP to sell the ECT but more or less a partnership business with Japan and India with Sri Lanka holding a majority of shares. The agreement also included a loan on easy terms from Japan, with a twelve-year grace period. This, according to analysts would have been far better where the ECT is concerned. The interest rate was also comparatively low.
The protests against the ECT deal gathered a highly vocal momentum among many quarters in and outside the fold of the government as many lobbied for the support of the trade unions in the Port. Nevertheless, when it was realized that the necessary endorsements were not forthcoming as expected, the Government of President Gothabaya Rajapaksa was inexorably placed in an awkward position after promising Adani of India a 49 percent stake of Terminal. Many ministers and parliamentarians joined the bandwagon of a section of the government, justifying the agreement with the Ports Minister taking the lead probably because either he had no in-depth knowledge of the subject or had no option other than toeing the line to protect his stake in the government. Many who are expecting positions and trying to convince the Rajapaksa administration of their loyalty have had many briefings outlining the importance of getting India involved in the ECT development. Chief among them is former minister S.B Dissanayake who is thus far just an ordinarymember of parliament. Many like him are trying to curry favour with the administration to secure something or the other for their wellbeing although they may be having their personal reservations. The present government by far known to be ultranationalist always maintained the importance of retaining state assets without sanctioning outside elements to reap the benefits of the country’s strategic and key economic centers.
Amidst all this hullabaloo, the United States also has taken an exception to back the Indian involvement in the ECT. India is a partner of the QUAD group of countries which is also known as the Asian NATO. The other members are the United States, Australia and Japan. The pertinent question here is whether the QUAD is operating against Chinese interests in the Asia- Pacific. It appears that the US has moved strategically to form QUAD in a bid to ensure its strategic presence in the region with regional superpowers. All four countries on many an occasion have expressed stiff opposition to China’s belt and road initiative that has embraced a sizeable region in Asia and Africa. Japan has particularly expressed their reservations about the ports built across Asia and Africa calling it a “string of pearls”
US Ambassador Alaina B. Teplitz who met with local journalists for a round table discussion has virtually backed India’s stake in the Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) saying the involvement of an Indian company is a worthy exercise particularly for Sri Lanka’s maritime future, India being the beneficiary of Sri Lanka’s port facilities or rather a transshipmentactivity. She stated that it was important to have the private sector participation in this case and that Sri Lanka could look for the best in its economic opportunities. She has also expressed America’s willingness to do business in Sri Lanka if there is a level playing field and transparent transactions. The area pinpointed by the US appeared to be the energy sector.
Does this mean there is no turning back for the Rajapaksa Government from its original commitment? The government, of course, can put the blame squarely on the previous UNP regime and take up the position that it was difficult to reverse an agreement reached between two countries which would not augur well for the government in its future dealings. However, when former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe agreed for an equity stake for China in the Hambantota Port, the then opposition played a different tune altogether emphasizing the fact that it would negate such ill-conceived pacts once they are in power. Nevertheless, a year has elapsed without a murmur of their earlier exhortations. The UNP’s move was to purely reduce the unbearable debt burden by half.
However, in this instance as far as the Rajapaksa government is concerned it is an act of balancing the tilt. Afterall when Hambantota Port was given to China under the aegis of Ranil Wickremesinghe is it not fair by any means to handover the ECT to India? It was Wickremesinghe’s idea too, but with a different set of rules and regulations. Wickremesinghe abhorred the alleged sale of the 49 per centstake and made public his government’s plans for the ECT. India is looking for a foothold in Sri Lanka by hook or by crook and their efforts are likely to materialize now amidst a howl of protests by the Buddhist clergy, political parties,various civic organizations and a host of trade unions. The government may have learned a bitter lesson that political pledges and falsehoods on election platforms are far from the reality on the ground. On the other hand, it is a good lesson for the electors to be realistic when they pledge loyalty to various political parties that what is told on political platforms is far from the truth. Minister Johnston Fernando at this crucial juncture has told fellow parliamentarians and the members of cabinet the importance of defending the government as far as the ECT issue is concerned ‘Once elected from a political party we have to stand up and defend the leaders for whatever the decision they take for the benefit of the country’.
At this point in time, India is vital for Sri Lanka especially in terms of the impending UNHRC sessions in Geneva. It looks like for the time being that even the US is trying to soft-peddle the issue in question when the sponsors of the resolution are talking tough. Although Sri Lanka would ideally not have wanted any Resolutions passed at these UNHRC sessions, the next best step was to get the Sri Lankan government to co–sponsor the resolution. But since Sri Lanka has declined, the sponsors are now talking of a consensual resolution to which most of the Tamil political parties and other organizations are vehemently opposed. Instead, they propose tough action to bring the matter before the United Nations General Assembly and subsequently the Security Council. Does India want this to happen? In such a scenario China is all out to exploit the situation and India and the QUAD are mindful that it would exert pressure on the tough-talking parties to smother their stance for a more consensual resolution.
Meanwhile, Minister of State for South Asia and the Commonwealth Lord Tariq Ahamad of Wimbledon was in conservation with the Minister of Foreign Affairs Dinesh Gunawardena recently and raised his concerns about many issues, including the impact of forced cremations of Covid 19 victims especially members of the Islamic faith.
Ahmad has further stated that the UK will continue to collaborate with Sri Lanka on issues of climate change and trade. In August 2020, it was revealed that the UK provided military training to 17, out of 30, countries on the British Foreign Office’s human rights watch list, which includes Sri Lanka, from 2018-2020. According to the British Foreign Office, this list comprises countries where the UK has “particularly concerned about human rights issues”. UK ministers have admitted to providing training to the majority of countries on this list.
This discussion with authorities in the UK comes before the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session in March. There have been increasing calls for Sri Lanka to be referred to the International Criminal Court and for there to be an international mechanism to monitor Sri Lanka and to hold human rights abusers accountable. In all probability the sessions this year, which begin in February, will be virtual ones. Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister is billed to make a five– minute speech during the sessions. Last week senior government officials were replying to the OHCHR report which will be brought before the Council when Sri Lanka comes up for review. The Report was put under close scrutiny for a watertight reply. Going by the vibes from senior government officials, Sri Lanka’s position will be a no nonsense one.
Meanwhile the letter which was sent by Tamil political parties, civil society organisations and religious leaders to the members states of the UNHRC is being sent to civil society organisations both here and abroad for their endorsement. So far, nearly 20 civil society organisations, including those from the South of the country, have endorsed the letter which in essence is a request among others, that alleged accountability issues against Sri Lanka should be referred to the UN Security Council, the International Criminal Court (ICC) and other institutions with similar mandates. This is because these issues have not made headway through the UNHRC Resolutions because they do not have the buy- in of the GoSL, especially after the government opted out of co- sponsorship of Resolution 30/1 and 40/1 to promote reconciliation, accountability and human rights. The Resolution on Sri Lanka which is currently in place will expire this year.
The signatories of the aforesaid letter also plan to send two more letters. The second letter will be sent and its President, to the UN Secretary General, members of the UN Security Council and the ICC reiterating their request for alleged accountability issues to be referred to the Security Council, ICC and other institutions with similar mandates. The third letter which will be sent to the UN General Assembly, its President and member states of the UN will reiterate the request in their first letter for a Syrian style International Independent Investigatory Mechanism to be established.
According to a source the drafts of these letters, the contents of which will have to be agreed by all the signatories, have not been finalized yet and there is no timeline for the letters to be sent.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan is scheduled to visit Sri Lanka on 23 February. His visit, which could be for as short as two days, will be the first this year by a head of state and comes not too long after that of India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar. A senior government official dismissed the visit as being a strategic one but rather one to enhance bilateral cooperation between the two countries.
The Premier’s visit will also be an opportunity for Sri Lanka and Pakistan to rebuild relations. Pakistan, along with Ukraine and Russia, provided military support to Sri Lanka’s war with the LTTE but relations fell by the wayside after that and this high– level visit will be a chance to pick up those ties.
Pakistan also plays an important geostrategic role to somewhat level the balance of power in the region between the Quad and China. Pakistan which is also a part of the Belt and Road Initiative is friends with China while it takes just a spark for relations between her and India to come to the boil. One political commentator pointed out that China might even be behind the visit which will shore up her position in the region.